How Now, Brown Big Cow?

I’m guessing that, as you read the title of this post, every single one of you did a mental double-take. “No,” your brain surely rebelled (perhaps even with a shudder). “That word order is not right. It should be ‘big brown’ cow, not the other way around.”

But why? Why is one wrong, the other right? And why is the “wrong” one so exceedingly disturbing to our ears?

I saw a meme on social media recently about adjective order in the English language, which made the grammar nerd in me stop scrolling to ponder this issue. The meme asserted that, in English, the order must be as follows: opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, purpose, and then the noun. The rule seems to be, essentially, that you move from the most general to the most specific adjective.

So it’s a beautiful, big, old, tall, rust-red, Californian, steel, suspension bridge. Any other order would sound strange to us.

But native English speakers don’t memorize this adjective order. (Many likely wouldn’t even know what an adjective was, if asked.) We simply learn this rule as we grow up, and any other way of speaking seems unnatural to our ears.

I therefore present you with a glorious, big, round(ish), French rain-umbrella:

And a funky, antique, badly-painted, steel touring-bike:

And a pair of quirky, newish, pointy, colorful, jute shoes:

Which raises a question: Are there instances where writers bend or manipulate this rule on purpose, to mess with our minds or to simply have fun with language? I can’t think of any, but do post them below, if you know of any examples.

And just how much can you bend the rule without causing readers to stop and shake their heads, or worse yet, write you a letter correcting your mistake?

Okay, so now it’s time for a fun little group activity (see what I did there?). Without consulting either the adjective-order set forth above, or other people’s comments, describe the following object, using all the terms I’ve listed below. The trick is to see if everyone comes up with the same order, more or less, based solely on our instincts and fluency in the English language.

ceramic, Italian, cup, dainty, espresso, round, lovely, white, new

I so adore language!

43 thoughts on “How Now, Brown Big Cow?

      1. But I did mess up by using “round” twice.
        I should not attempt these difficult tasks at 5:00 am without drinking any coffee, lol.

        Like

  1. Espresso, round, lovely, Italian, ceramic, cup, new, white, dainty…

    Having my second cup of coffee helped 😊…

    What a thought provoking exercise- thanks, Leslie!

    Ruth

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A lovely, new, dainty, white ceramic Italian expresso cup. Now I have to go back and see if my order agrees with your order. It never occurred to me that we have a set order to description. That is fascinating.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Omg, I can’t even remember what the categories are without looking! Which I just did. And I still need a cheat sheet. Hmmm. A brand-new delicate white Italian ceramic espresso cup. I’ll have to check and see if I matched the order. I’m in my phone now and can’t see everything.

    Btw, I always heard the saying as how now, brown cow. My first thought was, how did “big” get in there?!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Leslie, how cool! I never knew there was a rule for adjective order — just that stuff like brown, big cow sounds wrong!
    I can’t remember the espresso cup adjectives long enough to rearrange them (also on my phone). But, since lovely is an opinion it should come first, right?

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I’d say, “a lovely white ceramic Espresso cup.”

    And I saw that same meme and it fascinated me too, Leslie! It’s truly amazing the things we just know innately about language. I had a Chinese roommate in college for a while. She didn’t speak a lick of English until she got to CA in July, and she was enrolled in college a few months later. She would ask me things about English that I really had to think about, some of this same kind of stuff. And idioms … oh, the idioms were particularly difficult for both of us!

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Is it a problem that I wasn’t quite sure what was off about the title at first? There was something about that “big” that stuck out… So fascinating about the adjective rule, though.

    I’m a tea drinker, so sadly, I don’t really know how to describe coffee. All I got was: a white ceramic mug of creamy delicious coffee. Ha!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Your description makes me want that coffee more than the one I proposed! (It’s the addition of “creamy” that did it, lol.)

      And no, it’s not weird at all, since most of us don’t learn our native tongue by studying “rules.” We merely learn what sound right and what doesn’t, without necessarily knowing why.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I certainly don’t remember learning adjective order.

    And, I must admit, I read the title of your post as How Now, Brown Cow. Not sure if the order issue you talked about is why I skipped over the Big or if my lack of ability to completely absorb descriptions kicked in.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Fascinating, Leslie! I had no idea about this–or, if I did, it was subconscious. I have to admit, though, I didn’t see anything out of order at all–my brain completely skipped the addition and, like Mark, I just read, How Now, Big Cow.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. A new, lovely, round, white, dainty, ceramic, Italian, espresso cup.

    I think I remember a similar article. The harshness of the sound also plays into how we order things, if I remember correctly (with softer sounds generally falling before harder sounds – Mary and Ken, not Ken and Mary).

    Liked by 3 people

  9. A lovely new dainty white round ceramic Italian espresso cup.
    “ceramic Italian espresso cup” flowed out of my instincts without a thought. But the other five adjectives made me stop and ponder. “White” and “round” were the hardest for me to place, and I wanted to put an “and” between the two, for some reason. Fun game!

    Liked by 4 people

  10. New, white, round, ceramic , lovely, dainty, Italian espresso, cup.

    We could not mention the “Black Kitty” around Mister (the dog), because he would go insane (or more insane). So we started saying “El Negro Gato”. However, a Mexican friend pointed out that in Spanish “El Gato Negro” is correct. The noun comes first. I think there is more drama in our rule, for better or worse. We know that something is black. Is it a snake or a house or a bird? We have to wait to the end to discover. In Spanish, the noun is up front and the modifiers follow. I think it’s more rational, less emotional.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. FASCINATING!! I love the nuance of language, right down to The Order of Adjectives. (Which would be a really great band name.)

    I like to play with convention and expectation. That kind of grammatical interruption can be a great way to get someone to sit up and take notice. It’s like a purposefully strange chord or note in music. It feels odd, but it gets your attention!

    As for the photo, I’d say a lovely new dainty white Italian ceramic espresso cup. But ask me again in five minutes, and I might have a different answer!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. A lovely new dainty white round ceramic Italian espresso cup > what I’d say but I’m not sure why dainty is in that place, only that it doesn’t feel like it fits somewhere else better at this moment. Ha!

    I learned in grad school that so much of our grammar usage has been taken in through usage from the time we were very young so it is hard to articulate (and definitely hard to teach)!

    Like

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